Writer and Master Craftsman Alex Askaroff has written extensively for trade magazines, radio, television, books and publications worldwide.
Spies & Spitfires
A tribute to the ancient art of hop picking in Britain
A true story
Over the years, as I have collected so many stories, I kept coming across hop picking. It is difficult to imagine today but hop picking once touched countless families all around the country.
In the East End of London alone, on a good year, up to 200,000 people may have spent a month picking hops. Even on a normal year around 70,000 people, mainly mums and kids, would travel to the hops fields of Britain and spend their ‘working holiday’ picking the brown gold or ‘Grapes of the South’ as some called them, so sought after by brewers for their beer. One hop farm in Paddock Wood took over 4,000 Londoners most years. Each person needed to be housed and fed for a month in a military operation long lost today.
Rows of hop tents or tin huts were opened up as the families poured in from train stations. One of the first jobs was to clean them up and make them liveable again after a year lying dormant. Mice were chased out, pigeons were shooed away, and the odd owl or two that had made a nice quiet roost. Then beds were made, clothes unpacked and sometimes a few decorations, even a few hop bines strung around the walls. Partitions were hung up, occasionally even wallpaper was applied! Faggots of wood were collected for the open fires and the kettle boiled.
For a few short and enjoyable weeks in autumn these little ‘shanty towns’ became home, new friends were made and old acquaintances reunited.
Many families would travel to the hop fields of Kent and elsewhere on special ‘hop trains’ or ‘hoppers’, laid on for the unique mass movement of humans on their yearly pilgrimage.
It is hard today to understand how important hop picking was. Many families could not afford holidays but they could escape the grime and smog of the big cities and for a few short weeks and earn money towards the family coffers. For many women it was the only money that they earned all year and went towards everything from new shoes to Christmas presents.
Many farms paid in tokens rather than money and had their own farm shops where the tokens could be exchanged for food and goods. At the end of the month the tokens were exchanged for cash. These hop tokens are just museum pieces now.
Hop picking was mainly a female activity with mum and the kids. Men would often join them on weekends. If the husbands could get time away from work, they may even stay a week or more with the family. On the whole however, tens of thousands of women, once a year, ‘up sticks’ and escaped for a month.
Don’t get me wrong, it was hard long work and sometimes the kids were ill. One particular problem that children managed to catch was the dreaded ‘hop eye’ caught on the cold damp mornings when the sulphur from the oast houses drifted across the fields like mustard gas. Other problems arose like drunk husbands in the local pubs and even occasionally something went missing from one of the huts or a fight broke out, but all these were rare occurrences.
On the whole for many thousands of families, hop picking was remembered with great fondness and possibly the best time of their lives. We are going on a journey back in time to one particular family and their story. Follow along with Doll as the long lost world of hop picking comes back to life.
A small excerpt from the book
Doll, with her brothers and sisters, attacked the hop
poles with glee and stripped the hops flowers from the vines. Doll being
small would get the lower hops while her taller brothers and sisters
would reach up higher leaving the rest for the adults. Doll had to be
careful as the hops were protected by long prickly stems that would
scratch if given half the chance.
Rows of pickers moved along in slow procession
working the bines. Bines were the long vines that grew up the strings
supported by wires and chestnut poles. The bines were planted in small
circles of four. They were twisted together at about waist height to run
up the strings that then fanned out above into the canopy above the
ground. Once picked all the hops were dropped into a bin, which was a
large sack, supported by a wooden frame with handles at each end. Four
or more pickers could work around the bin dropping hops in as they
picked. When they moved along they would tug the wiry bine down from its
support and lay it across the bin then pluck the hops carefully and drop
them straight into the bin below. The farmer did not accept hops that
were crushed or dropped into the dirt. No leaves no crushed hops no
dirty hops! However more often than not they would be chucked into the
bin when he was out of site, it all added to the flavour! Once the long
sinewy bine was picked clean it would be neatly wound up below the poles
and the pickers would move on to the next one.
Pole men would work in front of the pickers pulling
down the larger bines of flowers from the top of the support wires. As
this timeless yearly harvest went on Doll would drag her umbrella up to
mum for emptying then run back to grab more hops. Playing, picking and
generally messing around all at the same time.
The sun rose and shadows shortened. The cool morning
air of late summer warmed and dozens of workers picked their way through
the fields, stripping off clothing as the sun reminded them winter had
not yet conquered summer. In the hop fields Doll was in another world.
The large hop plants towered over her like great pillars reaching
skyward. Where the fully-grown hops touched in the middle of the rows
the sunlight poured through them in a wonderland of green. Each way she
turned, North, South, East and West she was in a green world of rustling
leaves and musical birds. She was in God’s cathedral far away from the
noise, smoke and pollution of 1920’s London. Oh how happy could one
little girl be, how full of life and fun running around in wonderland.
Occasionally someone would start to sing. First one,
then two, then the whole field would burst into song filling the country
air with Cockney songs that lifted and mixed with the skylarks and
swallows. At midday all the pickers would break for lunch. A hop pot
would be swung over an open fire for hot tea, then sandwiches and cool
beer would be passed around. There is no cup of tea on earth that tastes
like a cuppa brewed from a hop pot.
As the sacks were filled a local man called the measurer with his daughters would measure the hops picked by each family. He would scoop out the hops from the bin with an oval shaped wicker basket called a bushel and fill a sack called a poke. It took many bushels to fill one of the pokes. As the measurer scooped his daughters would count, making a note of who had earned what in their books. The pokes were then loaded onto the cart and taken away for storage...
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